Santa’s visits are determined by neighborhood wealth, not children’s naughtiness, public-health researchers find.
By Francie Diep
Common wisdom has it that Santa Claus decides which children to visit based on whether they’ve been naughty or nice. But a new study says that’s not true; actually, it has more to do with how rich of a neighborhood the kid lives in.
Writing in the BMJ’s annual Christmas issue, a team of public-health researchers from the United States and United Kingdom argues, “No empirical evidence exists to support the assertion that Santa Claus rewards children based on good behaviour or to establish whether this is the only factor determining the likelihood of a visit from him.” So, sometime over the summer, the researchers called the pediatric departments in all the hospitals in the U.K. and asked the staff whether Saint Nicholas made an appearance on December 25th, 2015.
“We chose to study paediatric hospital wards because sick children are the most deserving of a visit from Santa Claus at Christmas,” the scientists write. (We also suspect the team chose to examine Santa’s hospital visits because they’re easier to measure than his home visits. That’s OK. That’s often how science works.)
It turned out that Santa visited most hospitals — 89 percent in England, 92 percent in Wales, 93 percent in Scotland, and 100 percent in Northern Ireland. But what about those few wards he didn’t visit? To figure out what might cause Mr. Claus to shun those patients, the research team checked different areas’ elementary school attendance records, rates of criminal convictions among kids aged 10 to 17, distance from the North Pole, and “deprivation index,” which takes into account median income, unemployment rate, disability rate, education, crime, and more.
The Santa and Santa-less neighborhoods didn’t differ in their rates of school attendance or disciplinary issues, two potential indicators of naughtiness. Nor did it matter a hospital’s distance from Santa’s factory, the researchers found. What made the difference was how socially and economically disadvantaged the neighborhoods were. For example, in northeast England — which has the U.K.’s highest unemployment rate, and whose residents tend to take home about $200 less a week than Londoners — Santa only visited half the hospitals. In posh South London, on the other hand, Santa visited every pediatric hospital department.
The BMJ authors cautioned against telling children the economic truth behind Santa’s visits. Although it’s feasible and perhaps helpful to teach even nine- and 10-year-olds about poverty and inequality, belief in Santa is also good for children because it helps them develop their imagination. No need to shatter the magic by saying that Santa participates in structural inequality. We do, however, hear that some charities can contact Santa Claus and remind him if he’s forgotten certain hospitals.